Aragorn awoke with the rising light, but whether it was the morrow, or many days thereafter, he could not tell. His eyes were heavy and his back stiff. The crash and churn of Rauros still rang in his ears and the dull pain of his wound came flooding back to him. He staggered to his feet and walked to a small brook that split away from Anduin and ran through the reedy wetland. There he removed the leather bracer on his left arm and washed his arm in the cool waters. With a fistfull of athelas that remained from his time with Radagast, he tended the wound and wrapped his forearm again in what cloth he had. He then plunged his head into the water and brought it up, the cold rushing through him and sparking his senses once more.
Several miles to the south, the Entwash splintered and ran into the Anduin in a vast green land cross with streams and pools that emptied into Anduin. To the east lay the harsh Emyn Muil, and south, the pathless Nindalf. He did not wish to get lost in the fen and bogs, there, but his path lay to the south and east. His encounters with orcs upon Amon Hen strengthened his resolve that the enemy sought Gollum, same as he, and that he need only find the harsh trail of the orcs.
He walked some ways south before crossing Anduin at a fairer point, clutching a log with his wounded arm and swimming with his free hand, letting the current carry him down as he brought himself to the east bank. There the hills of Emyn Muil fell away and the land, though hardly gentle, dipped between the hills and the marshland below. The orcs would pass through there, knowing little of the Nindalf’s ways, and wanting to avoid the Emyn Muil. They would set watch around the paths out of the hills, and block passage between them and Mordor. Their net would force Gollum to seek other routes, though what the creature sought by heading south and east, Aragorn could not guess.
But hope remained, and he clung to it tightly as he guessed Gollum would seek paths the orcs did not know. For that would lead him into the Dead Marshes. Aragorn seldom passed through those lands, with shifting mires and waterways that reeked of the dead. The lights in the mist drew men and orcs to their doom. There his will would be tested. As he watched the setting sun, he sped east under the cover of darkness. The land became soft beneath his feet, and he stayed close to the borders of Nindalf for many miles. One could say the Nindalf and Dead Marshes were one in the same; each carried many dangers, but as he came further east, the air grew thick. The reek overcame him and flies moved about in thick clouds. Here at last he would either overtake Gollum, or the path would run cold, and he would risk being lost in the impassable bog for many days.
Aragorn cursed the reeking bog as his feet once again sank into a thick sludge, which always lay hidden beneath what seemed a bed of dead grasses. Where he thought his feet could tread suddenly became soft and he sank beneath the surface, stumbling often, seeking new paths. The days were dim, and a thick mist hung about him from morning until midday, when the sun finally stood high and the mist thinned, but never could she burn them away or send warmth to his bones. He trudged along where he could, slowly, searching for safe paths that avoided the pools and twisted waterways that seemed to ever move and thwart his passage.
Many days he traveled; in every direction Aragorn turned, but ever staying true to an easterly heading. On his third day, he picked up the trail of Gollum, who also seemed to creep through the marsh in a winding, directionless path, but Aragorn soon came to see that the creature knew some way through the shifting mire; as the ranger slowly crept along, the creature’s path carried him along soft and stable ground.
Two days thereafter, Aragorn reckoned he had come to the heart of the marshes, though, the land stretched about in all directions without a marking feature by which he could draw his position. The pale mist obscured everything beyond, though the lurking presence of the Ered Lithui, and Mordor beyond, he could feel like cold fingers on the back of his neck. A growing dread spread over the marshes, and the darkness of the afternoon deepened. Aragorn stopped on his trail on a small, solid islet that held a thicket of brambles. He cleared away the earth beneath the bushes and lay there, pulling his cloak tightly, covering his head.
Darkness overcame the fen with s soft rumble in clouds overhead. He watched them roll from the south, sending away the mist like a sweeping hand. The evil storm groped across the marshland from the south; treachery of Mordor come to diminish his will. Aragorn clutched to his cloak amid the rain that beat down upon him. It swelled the reeking waters that surrounded him and they rose slowly, creeping ever closer to him. His knees pulled close to his chest, and his face buried there, too, he sang softly to himself, warming his heart as the cold and damp of the world caused him to shiver in the night.
The storm rolled back to the south the next day, and Aragorn could then see where he stood, near to the south and eastern borders of the marshes, for the Ered Lithui he could now see in the distance. No closer did he wish to travel to that place, and he sought Gollum’s path again, which barely remained on the soft beds between the waters, which had not yet receded from the storm.
The creature’s trail turned east, then north, and Aragorn was glad, for he now guessed its purpose. Having driven deep into the marsh, Gollum likely thought he evaded all pursuers; he now sought to turn back and return north, though not the way he came. Their path led to the Dagorlad, and Gollum could seek passage there, and north through the desolate Brown Lands, passing the Emyn Muil and return to the river Anduin.
Aragorn followed him on this path and he neared the eastern borders of the marsh. There the waters spread in wide pools with the dead stalks of reeds growing from beneath, as the water flooded the wide plain beyond. The air carried a sickly smell as thick clouds of flies buzzed above the grimy streaks of moss and sludge atop the water. It was here that Aragorn could see more clearly the dead who lay below the surface, like peering through fogged glass. Here many thousands lay, where Amdir in his desperation fled the battlefield of Dagorlad, cut off from his allies. He and half his host perished in the marsh. Their spirits haunted him, and the clammy cold gripped him tightly. Upon the wind, Aragorn thought he heard the wails of doomed elves and clangs of battle.
In the chilling memory of the Battle of Dagorlad, a fog came over his mind and as if in a sleep, he seemed to have walked some way, unhindered by the water, which now stood about his ankles. Aragorn shook his head and rubbed his eyes, as a wisp of pale sheet seemed to float about just beyond the corner of his eye. As if brief flames glowed on the water’s surface, the pool around him shimmered and the fog around him grew thick, as did the cloud that choked his wits. Feeling his body sway, and closed his eyes and put his hand firmly on the hilt of the ancient blade, which itself passed through Dagorlad in the hands of Elendil.
A weight fell upon his shoulders and limbs as a faint light drew his gaze down to the water below. With great strength, he drew his blade, holding it in both hands. It glistened, a light from within as the pale moon. The mist about him seemed to burn away.
Aragorn spoke in a low voice, “Hear my voice, for I am Aragorn, heir of Isildur.” Suddenly the strength of his blood and thought of his kin was not one of shame, but pride, and it strengthened him. His voice sounded not like his own, but a call from the distant past, a memory of lost kings, “Rest now, warrior of old, for my will shall preserve me this day.”
The fog in his mind cleared away and the weight lifted from him. He looked about and the land was cold and dim, the faint lights vanished like smoke. Aragorn stepped back onto the soft grass, leaving the pool behind; in it he saw a pale face, fair but at the same time grim in its sleep. The warrior’s armor still shone with golden splendor, but the water became muddy and obscured the slain, the depth of many a year covering what was once proud and strong. Aragorn returned his blade to its sheath and with his wits about him once more, he continued following the mire as it wandered through the pools.
Fortune favored him, for lo he looked ahead and saw the crawling, hopping form of Gollum traversing the same path. Aragorn bent low to the ground and crept slowly forward as the creature crawled ahead on all fours, jumping across the pools. Gollum stopped at a shallow mere and seemed to be peering into the water. Whether he heard the call of the fallen beneath the cloudy water, or spied some foul thing to eat in his desperation, Aragorn could not know. With the creature’s gaze occupied, Aragorn moved around and near to him, approaching softly.
As though the lurking evil to the south sensed Aragorn near to his quarry, the sky filled with rolling thunder. A dark wall of cloud encroached from the Ered Lithui once more, which, coupled with the oncoming eve, dropped a shadow across the land. But his course was decided, and he could wait no longer. At last, Aragorn leaped, and grasped, both arms attempting to hold Gollum’s waist. But the creature wailed and writhed, its body slick with grime. From his leap, Aragorn nearly sent them both rolling into the pool in which Gollum once gazed.
Gollum threw his limbs about wildly, striking Aragorn repeatedly. His grip failed and Gollum nearly crawled away, but Aragorn gripped the creature’s ankle with both hands. At this Gollum reached back to his attacker and swiped at Aragorn’s face. With all his strength, Aragorn pulled Gollum in close, his hands searching and combatting Gollum’s flailing limbs, attempting to wrench himself free. The creature’s screams echoed across the marshes. Aragorn reached for Gollum’s neck, but his foe bit down and Aragorn nearly let go with his other hand. Aragorn finally overcame him with brute strength, one hand wrapped tightly around Gollum’s neck.
“Gollum! Gollum!” the creature gurgled.
“Cease your struggle. At last the hunt is ended,” Aragorn said to him.
Aragorn’s grip silenced any curses Gollum hurled upon him as Aragorn bound the creature’s arms behind his back. The rope he extended to around the creature’s neck and then fashioned into a length that he could hold and lead the creature along.
“Why does cruel man hunt us,” Gollum cried, cowering on the soft grass.
“Questions must be asked, but not by you,” Aragorn said sharply.
“Gollum! Ask us what? Gollum merely seeks safe passage from nasty orcses,” he said.
“More than that do I guess, though we shall not discuss the matter here. For now, you are my prisoner, and I am charged to bring you to Mirkwood, where the Elven-king, Thranduil, will hold you. Do not bite me again, or I shall be none the gentler on our journey north,” Aragorn said.
Gollum wailed. Aragorn sat and prepared to wait out the night. He remained vigilant with an eye on Gollum who rocked back and forth, speaking to himself in a low, sing-song voice. He despaired, not for being captured, but rather as if he sang a lament for a lost treasure, but cryptic were his words, and Aragorn at last chose not to listen to his ramblings. He smoked his pipe through the night, sleeping not, but renewing his strength with food and water, deciding his course out of the marshes in his mind.